U.S. Drafts Compromise for Lebanon-Israel Dispute Over Natural Gas Resources

Proposed map, based on versions submitted by both Lebanon and Israel, delineates maritime economic border and defines where each country can search for natural gas.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The United States gave Israel and Lebanon a map detailing a proposed compromise for dividing natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean, a senior official in the Obama administration has revealed.

The Americans proposed the division as part of their mediation efforts aimed at neutralizing the tensions that have arisen between Israel and Lebanon regarding the maritime economic boundary between the two states.

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The maritime border between Israel and Lebanon is divided into two: a stretch of 12 nautical miles off the coast, with each country claiming full sovereignty of one side, and an additional stretch of more than 100 miles called the "exclusive economic zone" or economic waters – a territory which has gained strategic importance in recent years, after gas worth billions of dollars was discovered in the area.

The United States' latest mediation effort was unveiled by Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for Energy Diplomacy Amos Hochsteinat at a roundtable discussion at the Aspen Institute on November 29.

"Building that favorable investment environment in Lebanon is no small task," said Hochstein during the roundtable discussion. "First, it requires determining which waters are, in fact, Lebanese, by delineating consensus boundaries with Israel and Cyprus."

"While this is made more challenging by the fact that Israel and Lebanon do not agree on their terrestrial border, the U.S. has already acted as an intermediary and suggested a maritime boundary based on established international law and agreements," he added.

Conversations with senior officials in the U.S. State Department and Israel's Foreign Ministry indicate that the Americans handed over the proposal for delineating "economic waters" about four months ago.

An official in the Foreign Ministry said the issue was handled on the part of the Americans by Hochstein and Frederic Hof, who until recently was in charge of Lebanese affairs for the State Department.

Hochstein and Hoff visited Israel and Lebanon on a number of occasions, and held talks with senior officials on both sides. An official in Israel's Foreign Ministry said the proposal was passed from the Americans to a government team headed by Oded Eran, a retired diplomat, who in the past served as Israel's ambassador to Jordan and to the European Union.

The U.S. intervened with a mapped proposal to both Lebanon and Israel, as the two countries have no diplomatic ties and thus cannot reach understandings on the matter in a direct manner, said a senior member of the State Department.

The map is based on cartographic research undertaken by American experts, said the U.S. official. The map does not purport to represent the territorial border between Israel and Lebanon, but to provide a compromise formula for a fair division of the "economic waters" and the gas resources in the area.

The American representatives stressed in their conversations with Israel and Lebanon that they believe their proposal could offer a satisfactory and respectable solution for both sides. The Americans added in the same conversations that their proposal would enable the two states to put the disagreement behind them and thus enlarge the area in the Mediterranean where both would be able to search freely for natural gas.

Neither Israel nor Lebanon has yet given a final answer to the Americans, but have rather asked for clarification on a few issues.

The Americans have told Israel and Lebanon that the offer is on the table, and can be implemented either now or in the future. Regardless, the sides will not be required to turn the proposal into a diplomatic agreement between them – they can pass their agreement on to the United States, who will sponsor the understandings.

The U.S. offer stipulates that if the two sides agree to the draft, each will be able to announce separately the amendments to the economic water delineation in accordance with the American map.

Lebanon submitted to the United Nations in August 2010 its version of where the maritime border should be - the exclusive economic zone. In November, it submitted its version of its western border, with Cyprus.

The Lebanese proposal does not include the large Tamar and Leviathan gas prospects, operated by Delek Energy and U.S. company Noble Energy. But the National Infrastructure Ministry found that the proposal contains reserves with a potential value in the billions of dollars.

The Lebanese also sent their version to the United States, which conducted an expert review and endorsed the document.

In July 2011, Israel submitted its own version, to which Lebanon responded angrily and called an act of "aggression."

The map drafted in recent months is a compromise based on both the Lebanese and Israeli versions, and delineates where each country may conduct its search for gas.

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